DOGG'S HAMLET, CAHOOT'S MACBETH, by Tom Stoppard; directed by Ed Berman; designed by Norman Coates; lighting by Howard Eaton; produced by the British American Repertory Company.
With John Challis, Alison Frazer, Ben Gotlieb, Peter Grayer, Davis Hall, Louis Haslar, Ruth Hunt, Stephen D. Newman, John Straub, Alan Thompson, Sarah Venable and Peter Woodthorpe.
At the Terrace Theater through Sept. 30.
Little noticed by the population at large, Hurricane Tom blew into the capital last night from across the North Atlantic and sent hundreds of desperate theatergoers scrambling to the high ground of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.
When a hurricane defies alphabetical order, however, why should it follow any other orders? So those who expected to find safety in the Terrace's warm and intimate surrounding were cruelly disappointed. The play they came to see -- for it sometimes resembled a play -- was not even performed in English!
Scarecely had the curtain risen before lads in gray knickers were spewing out exclamations like "Frankly gangrenous armpits!" and "Afternoons, squire!" or counting all the way from "sun" to "dunce." But the knickers were funny, and so, it developed, was a great deal of the performance, sometimes in direct proportion to its incomprehensibility.
"Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth," the second of three Tom Stoppard entertainments to waft over from London to Washington this hurricane season, combines one of the author's oldest preoccupations, Shakespeare, with one of his newest, freedom of expression in Eastern Europe.
The mixture is a mixed success -- as ponderous as Polonius in places, inThanely funny in others.
There is nothing Stoppard likes better than manufacturing excuses for actors to shift from his own words in Shakespeare's, as he first did in "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." In "Dogg's Hamlet," the actors are students performing a hilariously condensed version of "Hamlet." In "Cahoot's Macbeth" (dedicated to Czech playwright Pavel Kahout), they are real Czech actors forced under ground -- which is to say out of the country's theaters and into its living rooms -- by the current, Soviet-backed regime, which sees unfortunate parellels between Macbeth's mode of government and its own.
The "Dogg's Hamlet" players are the perpetrators of the new language, in which familiar words have unfamiliar meanings. "Cube," for instance, means "Thanks." "Gym shoes!" means "congratulations!" And "cretinous pigfaced git" means, well, something. New languages, after all, take time.
But the funniest part of the opening play is in good old-fashioned Elizabeth English.
No sooner has Hamlet, brashly and delightfully portrayed by Ben Gotlieb, noted that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," than he is wondering, "To be or not to be, that is the question" and proclaiming, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." This is a souped-up, stripped-down version of "Hamlet" that, incredibly, leaves all the basic machinery intact, and lasts all of 15 minutes.
And for those who are offended by the idea of a 15-minute "Hamlet," the company, yielding to cries of "Encore," follows with a two-minute version that is even funnier.
After an intermission, we journey to Czechoslovakia, where, naturally, ordinary modern English -- to the extent that Tom Stoppard's English qualifies -- is the preferred language.
"This performance is not open to the public," protests the hostess of a living-room "Macbeth" to a nosy police officer who has burst in.
"I should hope not," says the policeman. "That would be acting without authority." Then he pauses to admire his own wit: "Acting without authority. You'd never believe I make all this up as I go along."
The police officer, curiously, has most of the best lines. "If you think you're going to drive a horse and cart through the law of slander by quoting blank verse at me," he warns the actors, "you're going to run up against poetic justice."
But the word-play is only nominally connected to characterization, on the one hand, or thematic purpose, on the other. Like "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," "Cahoot's Macbeth" never does much more with the issue of artistic repression than invoke it.
Like "EGBDF," too, the play has a trick ending -- but this time the trick makes sense. It is a stirring reaffirmation of the irrepressibility of art, and of Karl Kraus' dictum that "Satires which the censor can understand are justly forbidden."
"Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth" is being performed by the brand new British American Repertory Company under the direction of American expatriate Ed Berman. It is not hard to see why Stoppard has chosen Berman and BARC. Despite a few openingnight technical lapses, they appear to be a crackerjack team. Both halves of the bill are imaginatively staged -- making funny and efficient use of props and lighting effects -- and briskly acted.
It is also, of course, not hard to see why BARC has chosen Stoppard, the most playful playwright in the English language (or whatever happens to be his language-of-the moment) today. But the work Stoppard has chosen to provide is more of a kingly double-crostic than a play, and there are those -- we know we are -- who find double-crostics as exasperating as they are diverting.